A former amateur mountain-bike racer alleged Thursday that Tour de France yellow-jersey holder Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) attempted to trick him into carrying illegal doping products to Europe in 2002.
Whitney Richards, a 38-year-old one-time Colorado-based cross-country racer, told VeloNews that in March of 2002, Rasmussen asked him to transport a box containing cycling shoes. But the shoebox, according to Richards, actually contained bags of an American-made human blood substitute. None of the information Richards provided VeloNews involves allegations of current doping.
Asked by VeloNews about the charges at a post-race press conference following the Tour’s 12th stage on Friday, Rasmussen said he was familiar with Richards’ name but declined to comment further on the allegations.
“I cannot confirm any of that. I do know the name,” Rasmussen said.
The allegations come on the heels of a decision by the Danish cycling federation to exclude the Rabobank rider from that country’s world-championship and Olympic teams, citing a dispute over Rasmussen’s failure to notify the agency’s anti-doping officials about his whereabouts in the months leading to the Tour.
Richards said he decided to go public with his allegations after he heard the Tour leader comment on doping in the sport, promising that cycling fans could “trust me.”
Richards said he and Rasmussen developed a friendship when the Dane came to the U.S. to prepare for the 2001 world mountain-bike championships in Vail. Rasmussen won the world cross-country title in 1999, then started his transition to road racing in 2001 when he signed a stagiaire contract with CSC.
That friendship, said Richards, continued for several months until the American moved to Italy to live with his girlfriend in March of 2002.
Rasmussen was also living in Italy at the time, and according to Richards, Rasmussen asked that Richards bring over a pair of cycling shoes he had left in the United States. Richards agreed and two days prior to his departure, a mutual friend delivered a box purportedly containing the forgotten cycling shoes.
In an effort to fit all his belongings in his luggage, Richards opened the box to discard it and just bring the shoes – he said he then discovered the bags. Richards said he immediately called a friend – a Ph.D. physiologist – to help him decide what to do.
“I was blown away,” Richards told VeloNews. “This wasn’t a pair of Sidis … it was frickin’ dog medicine or something.”
That friend, Taro Smith, Ph.D., confirmed Richards’ recollection of the incident.
“I came to his house to figure out what was in the package,” Smith told VeloNews on Friday. “The box was packed full of silver Mylar packages labeled with ‘Biopure.’ Once you opened them there were clear plastic IV sets with what looked like blood inside. The box was packed full of these. That’s all I know. I don’t have first-hand knowledge of where they came from or who delivered them to Whitney, but I do know what was in the box.”
Richards and Smith decided to cut open the bags and pour the contents down the sink.
“There was no way that I would carry that on to an airplane or carry that through customs for anyone,” said Richards.
According to labels, the bags were filled with a hemoglobin-based oxygen carrier (HBOC) known as Hemopure, manufactured by the U.S.-based Biopure Corporation. The product is made from hemoglobin molecules that have been removed from the red cells of cow’s blood. Originally designed as an emergency blood substitute that requires no refrigeration, Hemopure has only been approved for human use in South Africa. U.S. clinical trials were recently suspended over safety concerns, but a similar product is currently used for veterinary purposes.
Endurance athletes were said to be using the product as a substitute for blood-doping or EPO use, though no one has ever been convicted of using Hemopure or other HBOCs. Its use is banned under the World Anti-Doping Code and the World Anti-Doping Agency developed a low-cost screening test in 2004.
A few weeks later when Richards arrived in Italy, he confronted Rasmussen about the package and its contents. He claims Rasmussen admitted it was poor judgment, but then asked Richards what he had done with the hemoglobin substitute. Richards said Rasmussen became very upset when Richards explained he had disposed of it, asking him if he had “any idea how much that shit cost?”
“[Then Rasmussen] stormed upstairs … and I decided at that point to just go to the train station and go home,” Richards recalled. “Really, he’s lucky I didn’t follow him upstairs and punch him in the face right then and there.”
“The nerve of the guy,” Richards added. “Not only is he a drug cheat, but he didn’t give a damn about anybody else. He was willing to put me out there to carry that crap through customs … into Italy at a time when they were investigating Dr. [Michele] Ferrari and people were lobbing accusations at Lance Armstrong. Think about what it would have been like for Italian customs to catch an American with a bunch of bike gear and cow’s blood at the border.”
Richards was offended, so much so that he contacted VeloNews later that same year. However, he asked that the conversation be off-the-record, declining to be named and asking that Rasmussen also not be mentioned in any way that he might be recognized. Because of those restrictions, VeloNews did not publish his story.
Several years later, after being put in contact with Sunday Times of London reporter David Walsh, Richards again offered details of the story, but continued to insist that neither he nor Rasmussen be identified.
“I really just wanted someone to know,” said Richards. “But I didn’t exactly know how they might use the information. I didn’t feel comfortable going totally public with this because I knew his girlfriend – now his wife – and I didn’t see a reason to bring her into it. My friends who were pro mountain-bike racers have always told me I should, because it’s guys like that who are ruining their careers by cheating. Still, it’s not a decision you make lightly.”
Walsh opted to use the story as an anecdote in his recently released book, “From Lance to Landis,” but respected Richards’ insistence that both parties remain anonymous.
Indeed, that’s where the story would have stopped, except that Rasmussen moved into the yellow jersey at the Tour de France on Sunday, after an impressive solo ride to Tignes. Richards said that it wasn’t the stage victory or even the yellow jersey that prompted him to go public with his story. Instead, it was Rasmussen’s recent “trust me” comments during the Tour’s rest day on Monday that prompted Richards to speak out.
“[Rasmussen has] won Tour stages before,” Richards said. “It’s not that. It was the press conference on Monday that got to me. Someone asked him about Bjarne Riis’ involvement with drugs and he went on about how he’s clean and then added, ‘You can trust me.’ That’s what set me off.”
Richards said he finds it offensive that a rider he knows “for sure is mixed up with doping” is leading the Tour de France when the race is fighting for its survival.
“Look at what the Tour has gone through this past year,” Richards said.“Ullrich, Basso and [Operación] Puerto last year, and the Telekom confessions this year. Riders are putting their salaries and their careers on the line to help convince people cycling is clean and this guy gets up and tells people, ‘You can trust me,’ something I know for a fact is not true. The stupidity, the arrogance, the hubris… it’s incomprehensible. Someone needs to know about this.”
VeloNews reporters Neal Rogers and Jason Sumner contributed to this report.
For a video on Rasmussen’s press conference and more Tour de France coverage visit VeloNews.com/vntv.